The proceedings of the Congressional hearings on the US Muslim community opened on Thursday in Washington and are described by some as a witch hunt.
Peter King (photo, from nytimes.com), the chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, called the hearings and said that Al-Qaeda is targeting Muslim Americans for recruits to terrorism.
In his opening statement, he said US anti-terror efforts since the 11 September 2001 attacks had prevented al-Qaeda from launching major strikes on the US from outside the country, but added that the Islamist group had turned to actively recruiting Americans for attacks.
“Al-Qaeda is actively targeting the American Muslim community for recruitment. Today’s hearing will address this dangerous trend,” he said.
The New York congressman also warned that bowing to the “rage and hysteria” the hearing had prompted would amount to “craven surrender to political correctness”.
The Muslim community has been accused by Republican Peter King of refusing to co-operate with law enforcement. He also said that in some US mosques preaching was leading to radicalisation.
“To combat this threat, moderate leadership must emerge from the Muslim community,” King said. “Today, we must be fully aware that homegrown radicalisation is part of al-Qaeda’s strategy to continue attacking the United States.”
‘We don’t want to stigmatise’
The first Muslim to serve in the House is Democratic representative Keith Ellison. After castigating the committee for its approach, he broke down crying while recounting the story of a 23-year-old Muslim paramedic who died when he responded to the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City.
“After the tragedy, some people tried to smear his character solely because of his Islamic faith,” he said on Thursday, adding : “Some people spread false rumours and speculated that he was really with the attackers because he was a Muslim.”
Mr Ellison finished by saying that the young man should be identified as someone “who gave everything for his fellow Americans” and not only as a member of a religion or ethnic group.
Mr King’s focus on a single community brought him criticism from religious and civil rights leaders.
However he denied accusations that the hearings were “radical or un-American”, arguing that the threat by al-Qaeda and neo-Nazis, environmental extremists and other “isolated madmen” couldn’t be compared.
The New York congressman defended the hearings by talking about the open attempts by al-Qaeda fighters to recruit its members to launch attacks.
Mr King and the committee were urged by John Dingell, Michigan representative and the senior Democrat in the House, to ensure that their investigation would not “blot the good name or the loyalty or raise questions about the decency of Arabs or Muslims or other Americans”.
A senior White House official was dispatched to speak to Muslim leaders in Virginia, which shows the concerns raised within the Obama administration by the focus of the hearings. The White House official told Muslim leader they were “not part of the problem”.
But on Wednesday US attorney general Eric Holder, who said that law enforcement focused on individuals rather than an entire community because “we don’t want to stigmatise, we don’t want to alienate entire communities”.
But Republican Peter King also faces accusations of aiding extremist organisations, as a Democrat reminded him during the committee hearing.
Long-time supporter of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in the 1980s Mr King proclaimed : “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it.”
But Mr King, who ended up serving as an important channel in talks that led to the Northern Ireland peace deal, sees no parallel between the IRA and violent Islamist extremism, because the IRA never carried out attacks on US soil, and that his only loyalty was to the US.